Campers Tackle Technology, Coding Through Dillard-Verizon Program
Communications and Marketing
The room full of middle school boys pecked on keyboards while coding, while another room of boys worked on 3D prints.
They smiled as brightly as the sun gleaming off the white buildings on Dillard University’s campus. They were part of the first of two summer sessions at Dillard under a $360,000 grant for a minority male-focused program of Verizon Innovative Learning, the education initiative of the Verizon Foundation, designed to expose student to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
The program is free to middle school students of color who attend New Orleans Public Schools. In three weeks, the boys received hands-on experience with advanced technology, including coding, 3-D design and printing, robotics and virtual reality.
“The left side is where you type in the mathematical equations and on your right is the output,” Randy “Scooter” Jones, 19, a junior at Xavier University, showed the students. He typed on a keyboard that was displayed on a large screen:
An error message popped up as Jones gave the example.
“You have to take the spaces out,” a student said.
“Look at you, checking me out!” Jones quipped. “Yes, some programs are very restrictive with the language.”
The students began their lessons in Scratch, a simple block coding program that shows how the layout should look. Quickly, the class was ready for a bigger challenge.
“They said ‘I’m tired of Scratch’ and that let me know that they are interested,” Jones said, adding that they’ll switch to MIT app inventor later.
The Verizon Innovative Learning Program is one way the University is giving minority students opportunity and access to STEM learning, said Dillard Director of Development Kimberly Woodard. About 80 boys are attending this summer.
“This is Louisiana’s first STEM program with special emphasis on technological literacy, competency, and proficiency,” she said. “In this, we aim to diversify the field of STEM with far more than just innovation and technology.”
Exposure in early grades to coding and other STEM efforts makes a big difference in a student’s life, said Travis Epps, 20, a junior at Louisiana State University, who was working with campers. As an underclassman, his grades weren’t stellar in the STEM subjects at first, and he could tell that many of his peers already knew the basics.
“When they get to college they will already have and understanding of what to do,” Epps said. “They will get better grades in coding and design classes.”
Epps described the class flow as giving the boys a task and putting emphasis on why it’s important. The boys have to see progress, and they will continue to get more and more engaged.
“At first I was nervous, but then I got more comfortable as the day went on,” said camper Martin Barnes Jr., 13. Barnes even practices his programing at home. He’s making a runner app, where the user tries to get coins by running from side to side.
Emmanuel Nganongo, 12, worked alone and quietly on a keychain that he’d print before the last day of class. His interest in the program was “getting to make whatever you want and stuff you really can’t buy in stores.”
Nganongo had a desire but no STEM skills before the camp. “I can’t really say there’s a best day because all of the days are fun,” he said.
He and other students have met Monday through Thursdays. The first session was June 7 through June 21 and the second session is currently ongoing, from June 22 to July 7. The program includes free breakfast and lunch as well as school supplies and backpacks after completion of the courses.
Between lessons, the students chatted about soccer, music and sometimes watched basketball
highlights. Jones said he saw himself in students.
“I’ve always been a nerd,” Jones recalled. His family, he said, would ask him to program the electronics at home, and later, he started taking them apart. That was the catalyst for his interest in coding.
But Jones, like the kids in the classroom, looks more cool than nerdy. He sported a spike afro with a short-sleeved, bold-print shirt.
“Nerds, they aren’t weak and useless,” Jones said, adding that it’s now cool have one’s curiosity and intellect on full display. And, companies like Geek Squad want workers with technology skills as well as intellect, he said.
“The images have shifted and it doesn’t carry a negative connotation anymore,” said Jones.